Can Sturgeon survive the SNP’s uncivil war?

She heads a minority government with few achievements and leads a factional party frustrated by her failure to deliver their number one policy.

She lost the governing majority she inherited and a raft of MPs after a lacklustre General Election campaign.

No doubt she believes, like Margaret Thatcher before her, that she can ‘go on and on’, but she has been in the game long enough to know which way the political wind is blowing.

It was inevitable that talk would turn to the timing of her departure and this week it did. Not Theresa May, who has conceded a schedule for her exit from No 10, but Nicola Sturgeon, whose future as leader of the SNP suddenly has a question mark looming over it.

The month began with her forced to deny rumours that she was being lined up for a job with the United Nations. Then, in a radio interview, she uttered the phrase: ‘when eventually I am out of politics and doing something else’. The words crackled with deeper meaning at a time when old foes lurk in the shadows, daggers at the ready.

Unlike the PM, Sturgeon’s leadership has some time left on its best-before date but has grown stale and, for some in her party, no longer palatable. Sturgeon’s premiership is not drawing to an immediate close but we can finally glimpse the beginnings of its end.

It could have all been so different. The First Minister has been dealt four of a kind in Brexit, Tory divisions, Labour’s haplessness and the return of Nigel Farage. Each of these plays to her agenda of pushing a second independence referendum and any one of them should be a strong hand in that game, let alone the quartet.

Three years on from the EU referendum, she has failed to carve a pro-separation majority out of a 62 per cent Remain vote. She has not managed to capitalise on Tory infighting and May’s daily humiliations.

Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal and its prevarication on Brexit ought to be enough to coax more of its Scots supporters away. The First Minister insists that Scotland ‘rejects’ the politics of Farage but, on her watch, his Brexit Party is polling in second place here.

Sturgeon’s attempt to bolster her fortunes by launching another push for Indyref 2 sparked excitement within the independence movement but it failed to push the dial in their direction. Polls say Scotland still wants the Union.

The SNP leader is haunted by a spectre far graver than public opinion: her predecessor, the Banquo’s ghost of the Sturgeon drama.

Alex Salmond strenuously denies the criminal charges against him but Sturgeon’s handling of the accusations against her old boss angered some within her party who feel she should have shown more loyalty. Politics is callousness in pursuit of idealism.

Salmond, his treatment at the hands of the Scottish Government and his political future are at the centre of the rows now roiling within the SNP. After 15 years of iron discipline, instituted by Salmond, the party has grown fractious.

Sturgeon does not appear able to deliver independence and so her grip on the party is being slowly loosened as colleagues begin to contemplate a post-Nicola SNP.

The SNP’s spring of discontent has seen tempers fray and acid quotes volley back and forth. Terms such as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘gradualist’ are back in fashion and the Left grows restive about a leadership whose economic outlook strikes them as little different from Tony Blair-era Labour.

Just as Labour was divided between Blairites and Brownites, the SNP’s future is now fought over by Sturgeonites and Salmondistas.

The SNP has dominated Scots politics for more than a decade by building a broad coalition but its parameters are no longer wide enough to contain supporters of the party’s two most successful leaders.

The Sturgeonites, home to the gradualists, believe their woman is still the best person for the job. She is, they insist, best placed to lead the party through Brexit and piece together a pro-independence majority. This may not sit well with some hardliners but it is closer to the voters’ instincts than the precipitous yearnings of the fundamentalists.

When she eventually goes, the Sturgeonites would rather see her replaced by a safe pair of hands such as Education Secretary John Swinney. Like Sturgeon, he is measured and mindful of the need to rebuild the SNP’s relationship with Middle Scotland before Indyref 2 can be called.

Keen to stress this point, the moderates have gone on the attack, identifying the cybernats – who routinely abuse their opponents online – as a major problem.

Former Westminster leader Angus Robertson, MEP Alyn Smith and Westminster defence spokesman Stewart McDonald denounced the internet vitriol merchants in a newspaper interview, and warned they were putting people off voting for independence.

Barely had the paper hit the shelves than they were condemned for speaking out of turn – and, worse, to a Unionist media outlet.

The row highlighted a fissure between those who see the need to temper the excesses of ideological nationalism and those who believe grassroots passion is a strength.

Sturgeonites deem cybernats a nuisance, not least to a First Minister eager to be the toast of the very commentariat Nationalist keyboard warriors delight in detesting.

The Salmondistas appreciate the former leader’s enduring popularity with a vocal and motivated group of members whose energy they want to harness.

A return volley has come in the shape of a row over Joanna Cherry, QC, the Nationalists’ justice spokeswoman at Westminster.

A former staff member has made complaints of bullying against the Edinburgh South West MP and her chief of staff. Cherry, who has herself been tipped as a future leader, is understood to be at odds with the party hierarchy over vetting procedures for sitting MPs and MSPs.

She told a newspaper she was the victim of ‘attempts to
smear my reputation’ that ‘may have come from within my own party’. The QC added that the handling of grievances against SNP politicians sent a signal ‘to those with petty motivations that if you seek to smear an SNP parliamentarian, the party won’t get behind them, even if they are subsequently exonerated’.

Sturgeon has issued warm words in support of Cherry but activists, reading between the lines, see the QC’s comments as a lacerating barb at the First Minister’s headline-obsessed approach to party management.

Cherry posted a tweet seemingly about Tory attacks on Theresa May but which many saw as a thinly veiled jab at her own side: ‘I’ll say this much for the Conservatives – at least they do their backstabbing in public.’

In January, Cherry ‘liked’ a post by another Twitter user calling for Salmond’s return as leader of the SNP. This has prompted speculation that Salmondistas are sending a message to the Sturgeon camp.

A party source believes there is some truth to this: ‘It’s a partial proxy war between pro-Sturgeon and pro-Salmond forces but that’s not the only fault line. The fundamentalists are back but now they have the internet and a newspaper to provide an echo chamber.’

Feverish talk in the canteen at Holyrood has turned to the possibility of Sturgeon standing down before the next election in 2021. Whether this would be as a result of her failure to deliver Indyref 2 or the proceedings against Salmond depends on which axe-grinder you consult.

If not Salmond himself, Cherry’s name is raised. One senior party figure dismisses such talk: ‘Cherry as leader is unlikely. The echo chamber may not realise how necessary Nicola is to the continuing success of the party.’

It is not even clear if Cherry would want the job. However, those dismissing her might be surprised to learn of the well of support she enjoys among the foot-soldiers and on social media. She is Nationalism without apology and a fair chunk of the card-carriers like that about her.

Those card-carriers have become more assertive themselves. Sturgeon’s breakfast-table mentality – her apparent belief that she and husband Peter Murrell, SNP chief executive, can run the party over their morning porridge – was disabused at conference last month.

Delegates defied proposals, set out in the Growth Commission report, to move gradually to a separate Scottish currency after independence and voted instead to speed up any transition. This is a major headache for a leadership keen to woo sceptical voters.

Sturgeon’s position has not been aided by a blunder which saw thousands of personalised letters sent to the wrong voters ahead of the European Parliament poll. The cost of the fiasco has been estimated at £100,000 – more than a third of the £270,000 campaign spending limit.

The party has referred itself to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate any potential data protection breaches. ICO can levy fines of up to £500,000 if any wrongdoing is found.

The error originated at party HQ, which is run by Murrell, and he reportedly faces a confidence vote at the next meeting of the national executive committee. Some will see it as a proxy vote on Sturgeon’s own performance as SNP leader.

The Growth Commission is a bête noire for the Nationalist Left as it bases its assumptions about the economics of a breakaway Scotland on modest social democracy rather than full-blooded socialism. The Left believes the only way to convince a majority to vote for independence is if it offers a clean break with the liberal capitalist model of the UK economy.

In a similar vein, veteran fundamentalist and Left-winger Kenny MacAskill has taken aim at the direction of the party under Sturgeon. Salmond’s former justice secretary compared the SNP to New Labour, saying: ‘The New SNP is drifting from its core support.’

Former MSP and leadership candidate Bill Wilson has defected to the Greens, accusing Sturgeon of advancing ‘neoliberal’ economic policies. At the other end of the spectrum, ex-MSP Chic Brodie this week wrote to his former boss accusing her of ‘headline-hugging’ by scrapping plans for an air departure tax cut after declaring a ‘climate emergency’.

The SNP used to be effortlessly Centrist but now careers from Left to Right without clear strategic objectives.

But a senior party member said: ‘Nicola isn’t going anywhere. People are getting very excitable but most of it is overblown. What Nicola needs to do to recover party discipline is simple: Keep winning elections.

‘That’s her USP. All parties have their ups and downs but when you’ve got a leader who delivers wins, you don’t throw all that overboard in a fit of pique.’

Another insider says the various rows are symptomatic of nothing beyond the behaviour and priorities of those involved. It is a prosaic explanation but with one major factor going for it: the polls. If there is a civil war raging inside the SNP, voters have yet to pick up on it. The party is far ahead in opinion polling for the next Holyrood and Westminster elections.

There is, however, a more immediate vote. Raw frustration sums up the sentiment towards those who have stirred up internal rivalries in the middle of the most promising European election in years. Unlike the Tories and Labour, the SNP has a clear anti-Brexit message and went into the campaign expecting that position to be rewarded by an electorate that voted 62 per cent Remain.

The Nationalists are still far and away favourites to win the Euro poll but the past week has seen some of their top talent sidelined by factional backbiting. It could mean the difference between winning three seats and winning four, a difficult feat to pull off but by no means impossible in the current climate.

Tomorrow’s papers, the final round of Sunday editions before Thursday’s vote, will be filled not with stories of betrayed voters flocking to the SNP, but of SNP politicians merrily wielding daggers against each other. With Labour and the Conservatives in disarray, it seems the SNP has decided to provide its own opposition.

However well the Nationalists do on Thursday, they will be haunted by the knowledge that they could have done even better if they had shown more discipline.

The SNP is a purpose-driven party and without a purpose it veers off the road. John Swinney’s leadership was bedevilled by tearoom skulduggery because the party found itself directionless in the new Scottish parliament. It took the return of Salmond in 2004 and the prize of power at Holyrood – and with it the possibility of a referendum on independence – to solder the various parts together into an uber-disciplined political machine.

Twelve years after assuming the mantle of government, that juggernaut is still astonishingly functional. It has renewed, repositioned and regrouped after setbacks in 2014 and 2017; every time opponents have counted it out, it has sprung back. This time, it appears to be staggering but no correction has come.

It may be that Sturgeon is no longer capable of asserting discipline over her Westminster group, which skews in a Salmondista direction anyway. Dissent may no longer be containable.

There are two years to go until the next Holyrood vote, though there may be another General Election before then. The pressure on Sturgeon will be intense. No one can predict the outcome of events at the High Court or the conclusions of any of the various inquiries into the Salmond affair. Any one of these could deal the fatal blow to her leadership.

An early General Election that saw a jump in SNP seats – as the polls currently predict – would ease the pressure, but Holyrood 2021 is the test that Sturgeon will be judged on. If she can retain parliament’s pro-separation majority she will then be expected to deliver Indyref 2, and fast.

If non-nationalists outnumber the SNP-Green alliance, Indyref 2 will be wiped off the agenda. It is difficult to imagine Sturgeon’s leadership surviving this.

Nationalists can be sentimental about their leaders, but they are ruthless too. They do not fill the Hydro for her any more; they do not pose for selfies. Nicola Sturgeon is no longer an icon but a plain old leader, and if her members decide she isn’t up to it, they’ll find themselves another one.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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